Amon sensed the oncoming conversation before it happened.
He knew in part due to the location where Zuri requested to meet – a little hidden alcove of cherry trees sprinkled around the banks of a pond. Overseen on all sides by gently sloping mountains, she told him it had been a place of solitude and comfort in her childhood.
All of this pointed to exactly what Amon thought it would.
“I’ve been thinking… and I’ve decided that want to stay in Yanxia for a little while longer,” Zuri told him, worry creasing her brow.
The Elezen was quiet for a moment, then said, “Yes, I know.”
“You… do?” she was surprised.
Maybe she expected him to be upset or disappointed. Amon was neither. He’d braced himself for her choice since the first conversation with Zuru opened the door to make it a possible option.
Zuri was home for the first time in a long time, and it made sense she wanted to stay for a while.
“Of course,” he said, prescribing no emotion to his words. “It’s a natural thing to desire.”
“You’re not upset, are you?” She spoke her worries.
“I… will… miss you,” Amon struggled to speak the truth. “But ultimately this is your life and your choice. It’s not for me to dictate.”
“I just…” Zuri wrung her hands, looking away. “You’ve taught me so much since I met you. And now that the Doman Enclave is rebuilding… I think I can help. I want to help. Just until things get better here.”
“Rebuilding your home is a noble hope. I can’t fault you for wanting that.”
It’s something he wanted, too. Though his desires were a little less selfless than hers.
The AuRa fell silent, seeming unsure what else to say. Maybe she’d expected him to respond with more emotion. Maybe she’d expected a debate or a need for explanation. But now that her intentions were spoken, there wasn’t much more for her to say.
Trying not to seem too insensitive, Amon tossed out the emotional fluff he felt she wanted to hear, “Just promise you’ll come back, okay?”
Zuri visibly perked up, as if all she needed was reassurance that she was wanted. She pressed her hands together, exclaiming, “Of course I will! You and the others… you’re like a second family to me!”
This statement resonated within the Elezen and took him by surprise.
Him? Someone’s family?
That was emotional nonsense. The girl simply claimed that because she didn’t know better.
Amon couldn’t say any of that out loud, of course. So he simply acted as if he was a little embarrassed about it. “Oh? Well…”
It fell flat to his ears. It’d become so hard to keep pretending with Zuri.
It’d never bothered him before. Covering things up. Misleading. Manipulating people to think they felt a certain way because it was their own free will. These things came as second nature to him after doing it for so long with so many people.
And yet, he struggled to keep the mask on. With Zuri. With Koh.
Why did they disarm him so much?
He’d even had moments where he thought he should completely come clean and tell Zuri the truth of the things he’d hidden from her. But for a rare moment in his life, he worried about the rejection this might earn.
Because if good, kind, pure Zuri were to reject him, then that meant he really was the terrible, heartless scoundrel he’d always been before. And…
Why did that even bother him? He couldn’t fathom it!
“Amon?” the AuRa’s voice pulled him out of his torn thoughts. “You’re spacing out again.”
“Oh,” the Elezen blinked at her. “I’m sorry. What were you saying?”
“Nothing,” Zuri smiled up at him. “I know when you get that way, you hardly hear anything anyone says.”
“Are you sure you aren’t upset?”
“No. I’m glad for you.” He tried to reassure her, but didn’t know how well he conveyed that sentiment.
“Then… what were you thinking about?” She pegged him with the hard question. Just like she always did.
“What was I thinking about?” He repeated quietly.
Just as suddenly, a stab of sharp memories flashed through his mind’s eye. The Crystal Tower. Face after face after face of reflections distorted through glass tubes. The broken cries of his victims. The cold-lit labs. The monstrosities that were born there. Night after night after night of sleepless, burning desire to find answers that would grant him the power and longevity to lift up his empire and…
Zuri’s hand touched his sleeve gently. She looked concerned, and quickly retracted her question. “It’s okay. You don’t have to tell me.”
Amon didn’t know what she saw when she looked at his face, but it seemed to worry her. As if she was catching on that something about him was far more dangerous than he let her know.
“I…” The Elezen shook himself out. He didn’t like it when hints of truth shown through the cracks of the masks he made. Still, he found himself murmuring with sincerity, “One day, I will discuss these things with you. I just think… Right now, you should focus on your people.”
“Yes.” Zuri took a deep breath and nodded. This appeared to make sense to her, and she accepted it. Still, she tilted her head and spoke earnestly, “But you don’t have to be afraid to tell me things. Whatever happened… is happening… I’ll understand.”
Amon didn’t trust himself to speak. He nodded in response, but only for her sake.
If they were going to part ways, he preferred their last day be one of pleasant memories. So, he covered his doubt with a bright smile, and led the conversation away from such dour thoughts.
As always, Zuri was eager to follow, and he had her laughing about other things in short order. He couldn’t deny, even to himself, he really would miss her.